Mrs Death Misses Death is the must-read book of 2021 and Tales from Absurdia’s Book of the Year.
It’s a modern masterpiece that transcends form and genre. This is perhaps part of the reason that, despite having read Mrs Death Misses Death over 6 months ago, I’ve been mulling over the best way to review a book like this. Because this is, undoubtedly, a difficult book to review.
Salena Godden, a UK poet of great renown, wrote sections of her debut novel to music. This is especially apparent if you read the audiobook. At times, the narrative unfolds as prose. Other times, it manifests itself into Godden’s more familiar form of poetry.
The tale of Mrs Death even transforms into a screenplay/radio drama of sorts for a brief period. There’s a fluidity to the writing that refuses to be pinned down and categorised by a mere review.
But don’t be mistaken – there is no pretense to Godden’s novel, nor is this an overly complicated book, requiring only ‘high brow’ tastes in order to read. This kind of exclusivity is what Mrs Death Misses Death rails against.
Godden is merely inventive and explorative in the way that she imparts her tale. It’s clever, thrilling, and never gets in the way of the novel itself.
'Spoiler Alert: We all Die in the End'
Mrs Death Misses Death features two central characters. Wolf Willeford is the first; a poet and aspiring writer whose mother died in a fire when their block of flats went up in flames, echoing the tragedy of Grenfell Tower.
And then there’s Mrs Death herself. In spite of her name, she is not the wife of Death but death itself.
Wolf, author of the in-text Mrs Death Misses Death, transcribes the stories she imparts whilst reaping souls on her journey through history and time.
But Mrs Death, a shape-shifter who reconfigures her appearance throughout the novel, is tired of reaping the departed. She’s saddened by the deaths in Syria, and the suicides of people gone long before their time.
This is a dark tale of violent imagery, crippling poverty, and sexual exploitation. The Tale of Tilly Tuppence is particularly emotionally challenging to read.
Ir’s also an essential book for the modern reader – Godden raises a mirror, forcing a confrontation between the reader and the injustices they’ve witnessed in life, and probably ignored.
The pronoun ‘we’ is used persistently throughout, thrusting culpability upon the reader, not dissimilar to the way Albert Camus’s Jean-Baptiste in The Fall scolds the reader for their hypocrisies.
It’s deeply personal, and deeply unsettling.
'Mourn the dead and fight like hell for the living'
In spite if the unsettling content here, it’s worth mentioning that Mrs Death Misses Death is not a nihilistic book in the slightest.
After all, this is a novel penned by the writer of Pessimism is for Lightweights: 13 Pieces of Courage and Resistance.
“Mourn the dead, and fight like hell for the living”, Godden inscribes in the front of the cover, urging us to look forward and focus our energies on improving the lives of the living, rather than lamenting the dead. Because ultimately, this is as much a novel about life as it is death.
Mrs Death Misses Death is also hilarious, alarmingly so considering the subject matter. The introduction, punctuated with witticisms such as ‘Spoiler alert: we all die in the end’, is quite possibly my favourite passage in literature – let alone this year.
This wry, acerbic humour punctuates the entire book, reminding the reader that finding humour in adversity is one of the greatest emancipators of our species.
What makes Mrs Death Misses Death book of the year, outstanding name aside, is its poignancy.
The final pages of the novel are left entirely blank, reserved for the reader to write down the names and dates of loved ones passed on.
In the context of the time that this book was published, at the height of the COVID pandemic, this is a remarkable gesture and testament to the novel’s mature treatment of both life and death.
Given the scale of loss we’ve suffered collectively as a species in recent years, this is particularly poignant. In pathos, Mrs Death Misses Death encourages us to celebrate life – and cherish the things we love.
That’s a special kind of optimism we all need right now.